By LINDA MASTANDREA February 19, 2014 | Chicago Sun-Times
As a child growing up with cerebral palsy, physical education, sport and recreation were seemingly out of reach for me. I sat on the sidelines, was picked last for teams if at all and was sent to study hall or the library instead of PE.
When I got to college at the University of Illinois, my whole life and the direction my future would take were irrevocably changed when I was introduced to wheelchair basketball. It opened the door to a whole new universe of opportunities I hadn’t known existed — a new way of looking at myself, my future possibilities and potential.
After learning that I could actually be a competitive athlete, I got involved in wheelchair track and road racing. Over the span of a decade, I raced my way around the world to 15 gold and five silver medals, including gold and silver in the 1996 Paralympic Games.
Though I no longer compete, my involvement in disability sport and my status as a Paralympic champion continues to open the door to opportunities for me, including a career in disability law and advocacy, working with people with disabilities to help them gain access to education, employment, housing, transportation sports and recreation.
Another amazing opportunity that came about as a result of my Paralympic participation happened in 2006, when I got involved in Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. After promoting the bid around the nation and the world for three years, in 2009, I was selected to be part of the delegation that would present Chicago’s case to the International Olympic Committee on why we should be awarded the honor of hosting the 2016 Games alongside President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and then Mayor Richard M. Daley. What an honor!
More recently, my Paralympic sport background led to me getting involved with Variety, the Children’s Charity of Illinois. Variety helps children with disabilities become active and involved through the Kids on the Go! Program, which provides adapted sports equipment — like sports wheelchairs, handcycles and adapted bikes — to children whose families can’t afford it. This allows children who are often relegated to the sidelines like I was to participate, and play with their families and friends. We also promote youth getting involved in the highest levels of sport through our Live to Achieve grant program, which offers up to $1,000 toward travel, training and competition expenses for youngsters with Paralympic potential.
I know firsthand the importance of sport in the lives of young people with disabilities. Without it, I would not have developed the self-confidence to pursue a career in law, the opportunity to travel and speak around the world or the ability to help create the next generation of successful young people with disabilities both on and off the field.
To learn more about the Variety organization, programs and fundraising events — including how to buy tickets for their upcoming Academy Awards viewing parties — visit Varietyofillinois.org.